Photo Credit: Clairborne Pell Elementary School
Yesterday was the one month mark of the 2017 summer season. After an incredibly gloomy June, July has seen spectacular weather and consistent forecasts. Ironically enough, this article is being published during a week of rainy and overcast weather but nonetheless, it finally feels like summer here in Newport.
When we last spoke, I was debuting my environmental campaign ‘The Last Straw’ in hopes of gaining support for the initiative across the community. With help from Clean Ocean Access, The Last Straw has slowly made an imprint amongst local restaurants and continues to grow each week. Many restaurants have eliminated the small stir stick straws that are commonly served two at a time in cocktails. These small straws served no purpose for the most part and are often discarded immediately upon arrival. Other restaurants have switched to compostable options or have gone a step further and only serve straws upon request. Here’s an update on our progress and an anecdote about a special group of students I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this summer!
On June 27th, I was fortunate to meet a group of young people who see the bigger picture when it comes to plastic pollution. I received an email a few weeks earlier from a second-grade teacher at Pell Elementary school named Sybil Grayko. Mrs. Grayko explained to me that her class had been working on an ocean sustainability project primarily focusing on the dangers that plastic poses to our aquatic environments. Her students had watched documentaries such as A Plastic Ocean and were inspired to make a change.
After a significant amount of research (not just for second graders but anyone for that matter), these students decided that they would make a pitch to their administration to ban plastic silverware and plastic straws at their elementary school. Citing expenses, environmental concerns and the fact that they learn and live in an ocean-driven community, these students put on an overwhelmingly compelling presentation in front of a room full of proud parents, environmentalists, administrators and even the Mayor of Newport, Harry Winthrop.
The passion that these students displayed made my mouth hurt from smiling so much. They spoke confidently and convincingly throughout the presentation and used data and scientific research to support their claims. They showed how much money Pell Elementary school could save over the next ten years by switching from plastic to reusable silverware. They showed how plastic affects our local marine life as well as how many single-use straws were used in a single day between lunch periods at the school. Keep in mind, these children are seven and eight years old.
The students put together a ‘skip the straw’ poster and encouraged their schoolmates and peers to sign the petition to not use a straw at lunch. Many signed the poster and according to the students, they made sure to call out anyone who ‘talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.’ Mrs. Grayko said that the passion for the project extended outside school walls to their home-life and the students made sure that their parents were skipping the straw when dining out! I had a gentleman in Caleb&Broad last night who passed on a straw and of course, his daughter was part of that class.
Shaping the mind of America’s youth is no walk in the park. With so many children coming from so many different backgrounds, being a teacher today is not an easy task. It’s teachers like Sybil Grayko that inspire change within their students. They empower them to make a difference and encourage them to take chances. Watching the way her class interacted amongst themselves, with others and how they helped one another was heartwarming. In the short amount of time I spent with this special group of students, it was her guidance and passion for teaching that stood out the most. You could feel that she truly loves what she does as a teacher and it would be irresponsible of me to not reference her in this editorial. I’m sure she’ll pass the credit on to her students but I want to extend a sincere thank you to Mrs. Grayko, you’re amazing.
Unlike the plastic bag legislation that was passed unanimously last year, The Last Straw campaign is not aiming to ban straws. Instead, I am hopeful that this initiative educates people about the environmental hazards these single-use plastic suckers present to wildlife as well as how many are unnecessarily used each and every day in our small seaside city. Placing a straw in a drink is so habitual for servers and bartenders, it’s almost mechanical. Next time you’re bellied up to a bar around town, take a minute to look around and watch how many straws are used and discarded during your tenure. Now imagine if 10% of those straws end up in the ocean and how many times that happens a day. The numbers don’t lie and the statistics are incredibly daunting.
By understanding our habits and subsequently realizing our own responsibilities when it comes to waste, we can change the way we approach pollution. A person who is ordering a second cocktail, does not need a second straw. Water glasses or cups should not warrant one. They’re tiny changes but at the end of the day, they make a huge difference.
With every campaign comes criticism. I’ve received many skeptical questions such as, “why are you bothering with straws when most restaurants don’t even recycle?” “Why bother when it’s not going to change anything?” “Why is it such a big deal, it’s a straw?” Rome wasn’t built in a day and our plastic pollution problem won’t be solved overnight either. It’s small changes that start to make a difference and this is my way of controlling what’s within my own reach. I work behind a bar six nights a week and see how many plastic tubes are discarded daily. I watch servers bring straw after straw to the same table not even considering how many they’ve just wasted.
This is something I am passionate about and it’s an environmental project aimed at inspiring change. It’s those who catch on and support the cause that creates the change. Skip the straw or bring your own. Reusable copper or stainless steel straws make great alternatives, are very affordable and are easy to carry around. It’s essential that we start taking note of our own carbon footprint and find ways to reduce our own waste. We live by the ocean, it’s time we take some extra steps to protect our greatest asset.
I’m not trying to save the world but if my campaign can save 1,000 straws from ending up in Newport Harbor or Narragansett Bay then I feel I’ve made a difference. Now if we can work together as a community to save 100,000 or 1,000,000 from ending up in the ocean, we’ve all made a big difference. If a classroom of 7 and 8-year-olds can see the bigger picture, it’s time we all open our eyes.
Tyler Bernadyn is a local hospitality professional, bartending at Midtown Oyster Bar Wednesday through Sunday nights on the Burgee Bar and at Caleb&Broad on Monday nights for their award winning $10 entree dinner special.
Tyler is a graduate of Providence College and a true Rhode Islander, born and bred.
Email him at TylerBernadyn@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram at @tylerbernadyn.